First and foremost Castel di Sangro is a town, a once bombed-to-rubble mountain town in the heart of Italy’s forgotten Abruzzo region. But it was the team from this village that put Castel di Sangro on the map when against all odds, during the height of il calcio’s powers in the late 90s, climbed the long ladder from the cellars of the Italian football pyramid into Serie B, a league with more talent to boast than many first divisions across Europe at the time. However, the book The Miracle of Castel di Sangro is the story of what happened next, a firsthand account by an extremely lucky American journalist named Joe McGinniss that was privileged enough to cozy up next to the team, its players, fans, and higher-ups for a season long epic across Italy.
In many ways I envy Joe McGinniss. That being said, in many ways I do not. For what he peels back in his yearlong sporting adventure in Italy is both humbling and unnerving. Like any great tale there are exhilarating highs and debilitating lows. But as priceless as McGuinness’s experience is, what he discovers about the darker side of il calico is for him, a relative newcomer to the sport, very difficult to stomach. His greenness nevertheless provides an extra element of surprise as he wades through the brush of Italian football almost blindfolded to what a soccer-obsessed audience may already expect to be coming. Though for the era in which it was written, one of soccer-pioneering in the U.S., his nativity is relatively par for the course and therefor permissible, even as you skim through the explanation of things like promotion/relegation. It adds to the reader’s anxiety when the self-righteous and misplaced bravado McGinniss exudes frequently pushes him to overstep his boundary in the company of a happenstance cast of delightfully diverse characters. Throughout the chapters Joe learns as much about calico as he does about Italian culture. On the flip side, being schooled by the experience of a long and hard season may have been more than what the author was originally bargaining for.
I do not use the word ‘entertaining’ lightly when I begin to describe the contents of this page-turner, but this book very much is entertaining. The tale of events in Joe’s account is, at times, so outrageous it teeters on the wire of unbelievable. The amount of this story to which McGinniss felt he was at liberty to embellish is completely up to each reader’s interpretation, but with absolutely no way of knowing for sure, one can only take the mood-shifting events at face value. For many, the year 1999 doesn’t seem so long ago, but McGinniss’s tale is dated by names you haven’t heard in a long time, and technology like a skippy team bus VCR induces a welcome dosage of nostalgia to the read. This is one of the most twisting, true-life records of any first person story about football that we’ve come across. That's why it's on our bookshelf.